I dove into my personal archives to see if I could find the first time I ever mentioned COVID-19 in print. Turns out it was a Facebook post from January 26, 2020, a week before the Iowa Caucus and a little more than a year before seething mobs of hard-right Republicans crashed the doors of the Capitol building looking to hang Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi.
“I have never been one to get spooked by these ZOMG PLAGUE YOU GUYS stories,” I wrote, “even when I lived in a big city. This one, tho, has me nervous for entirely personal reasons. It’s a form of viral pneumonia, and I am only 2.5 years removed from a bout of pneumonia that came within a thin eyelash of killing me. Every time I hear the P-word, my ears perk up. Glad I live in the woods now. 50% increase in a day is wild stuff.”
Sixteen months later, I’m sitting here trying to figure out where to slot that into what passes for reality today. The virus I called “wild stuff,” that I and everyone thought was only in China — but was probably already here — has infected nearly 33 million people in the U.S. in the intervening time, killing more than 587,000. The elderly in nursing homes and workers in meatpacking plants were laid waste, people of color and disadvantaged neighborhoods absorbed a ruthless pummeling, and virtually every institution we ever relied on either wobbled badly or collapsed outright.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump spent his final year in the White House denying what he had known to be true (according to Bob Woodward) about COVID’s brazen lethality since February, because he feared looking weak to his base. He lost an election that still saw 74 million people vote for him despite his horrifying performance, and by the time the Capitol was sacked, the country had moved into a space that was almost completely unrecognizable.
The fact that so much of it came down to masks will be one of the stranger mysteries future historians will ponder long into the night. Thanks in large degree to Trump, wearing a mask came to be perceived as an un-American act. Certainly, it wasn’t something any Trump-supporting Republican was going to do as a matter of honor. After the vaccines arrived, refusing the needle (along with the lost election and the Capitol sack) in favor of a slate of fact-free conspiratorial fictions became yet another acid test for the True Trumpers among us, despite the fact that Trump himself got the jab.
By the millions, they have taken the pledge, and Biden’s rapid vaccine rollout has stalled out for lack of willing participants. At present, only 37.3 percent of the entire population has fully been vaccinated against COVID-19 and its variants.
All these months and dead people later, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) abruptly announcing that masks are mostly superfluous for vaccinated people now, the argument has not ended. Instead, masks have become the banner for those who have lost faith in the muddled guidance emerging from the CDC. Many of these people are progressives who stapled themselves to science as a guide through the long dark of the pandemic, but that faith has been badly shaken, and may never return.
A recent New York Times article showcases a man named Joe Glickman, who has no intention of unmasking anywhere in the immediate future:
Even as a combination of evolving public health recommendations and pandemic fatigue lead more Americans to toss the masks they’ve worn for more than a year, Mr. Glickman is among those who say they plan to keep their faces covered in public indefinitely.
For people like Mr. Glickman, a combination of anxiety, murky information about new virus variants and the emergence of an obdurate and sizable faction of vaccine holdouts means mask-free life is on hold — possibly forever. “I have no problem being one of the only people,” said Mr. Glickman, a professional photographer and musician from Albany, N.Y. “But I don’t think I’m going to be the only one.”
Whether made of bedazzled cloth or polypropylene, masks have emerged as a dystopian political flash point during the pandemic. A map of states that enforced mask mandates corresponds closely with how people in those states voted for president.
“Governor Charlie Baker on Monday announced Massachusetts will lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, moving up the state’s reopening timeline by about two months,” reported The Boston Globe on Monday. “Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey announced Monday afternoon that Boston will join the state and rescind its COVID-19 measures on May 29.” Large-capacity venues like Fenway Park and the TD Garden will likewise be opened to full capacity on the 29th. This is all because of that CDC announcement, and cities across the country are following suit.
I am perfectly willing to hear the argument that anxiety is impacting my decisions after this grueling year of death, uncertainty, loneliness and fear. Maybe I’ve become one of the people you’ve surely read about, who are still cloistered and unnerved after so much solitary time spent worrying about bubbles, hand sanitizer and yes, masks. Time, and the body count, will bring the truth of it, as it has since the beginning.
But I believe this is too soon. Less than half the country is fully vaccinated, and no children under 12 have gotten the shot; there’s about 50 million of them, and as I wondered yesterday, will kids keep wearing masks if they see the adults around them taking those vital coverings off? Anyone with children knows the answer to this, and it isn’t a comforting thought. Meanwhile, India and South America are in the midst of an exploding COVID calamity, and as we have learned to our woe, those calamities couldn’t give less of a damn about respecting borders.
More than anything, I am hesitant because I know this is all happening to serve the appetites of capitalism. There is no question that business has suffered during this pandemic, but it has time and again been that rush to serve business that has caused us to reopen before we are ready. Every time we have relaxed, the virus has surged, and businesses along with the rest of us have taken it on the chin.
Our constant inability to bring that hungry capitalist hound to heel in the name of science and safety is the reason this pandemic has lasted so long. We have made sacrifices, all of us, but we all take a far back seat to capitalism’s need for warm worker bodies and cash. Capitalism has won that argument every time it has come up during this thing, and today it is winning again.
Nothing would please me more than to be wrong about this, but I haven’t been wrong very often since that Facebook post from two Januarys ago (something else that has also sucked), and I’m pretty certain I am not wrong now. I will keep wearing my mask and avoid crowds as best I can. I believe in my heart this thing will be over to a livable degree someday, but it is not today.
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